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Interviews

John Tilbury: A Strong Emotional Response To Music

By Published: August 17, 2010
AAJ: Are you quoting that because it is equally true of you, you feel that same cost?

JT: Yes. I do. Or rather, I strive towards it, towards failing better. It is uneven, of course. You are not playing on the edge all the time but you must have that commitment, that seriousness, when you play. If not, why bother? I was going to say conviction, too. Maybe conviction is misleading because certainly in improvising uncertainty, hesitancy, can find elegant and moving expression. You are feeling your way; you're not sure whether you are making the right decisions, especially in the early stages.

From left: John Tilbury, Eddie Prévost

I was listening to a program about the Tate Modern the other day. Nicholas Serota, the director of Tate Modern, was talking about the great number of people that visit it— millions of people each year. I thought about this; what exactly is the experience they are having there? J. G. Ballard described Tate Modern as a middle class disco. I'm not sure about that; I wouldn't have used that phrase, but I can see that the fact of going to Tate Modern in itself is of very little significance. What kind of commitment do the people who go there have? There are lots of people there. There are conversations behind you that you really don't want to hear; in front of you your vision is impeded. It is too much like ordinary everyday life, too much like walking down Oxford Street—part of a day out, conveniently fitted in. Exactly what kind of experience is it? Are they just "doing art?" Compare that with our concert at King's Place. The Tate Modern is handed to us on a plate, with considerable inducement; it provides status, especially to business. Some works at Tate Modern purport to represent the human condition, yet they serve only to anesthetize. At best, they create a feeling of empathy. But we don't need art to feel empathy. The anger and fury of the young British Islamists was not fuelled by art, but by switching on their TV sets and watching the news. Political art is problematic because, more often than not, the song is invalidated in and through the culture that sings it.

The Feldman concert—that is something else. There you have a group of people who commit themselves to sitting and listening and concentrating for one-and-a-half hours. That is completely different. How many people have the time to sit and listen and reflect for even 10 minutes, never mind an hour-and-a-half. This degree of commitment is unusual. What I think we were doing, apart from anything else, was satisfying a contemporary need in people for calmness, attention, concentration, respect for others.

AAJ: People do give that depth of concentration in a concert, which they may not while listening to CDs at home.

JT: Where you are very vulnerable to distraction.

AAJ: With an art exhibitions that you really like, you go back to four or five times, for exactly that reason.

JT: Yes. You go in there for, say, 10 or 15 minutes and just look at one painting. That is it, and then you just leave. Although there is always the risk of disturbance. It is such a private experience, you don't want people to be there. You just want to be by yourself, looking at a painting. There is a Vermeer in Vienna that we have been to see a few times; Janice likes to go there just to experience this Vermeer painting. I think she is so jealous of her experience—it is so precious, fragile, vulnerable, that she wants somehow to protect it.

I remember going to a concert with a pianist I much admired, the Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda. He also played jazz. He won the Beethoven prize, which he returned. When I was a student in Poland, in Warsaw, with a bunch of students, we went to hear him play. He played Mozart and Beethoven first, then after the intermission he played Debussy. The Mozart was so pristine, so magical that I decided I didn't want to hear anything else; I'd had enough. So I didn't go to the second half. But afterwards we met him and I told him I hadn't been to the second half and told him why. He said, "I can understand that, but it is a pity you didn't hear the Debussy. It was even better." [Laughs.]

AAJ: Is your own emotional response to the music that you described your ideal of what you want the audience to experience when you play? Is that what you hope for?

JT: I do. Ideally, I want it to be life-changing. I'm certainly not doing it for my own self-gratification. I strive towards something worthwhile, which brings the musicians and listeners together

I have spoken about music and tears. It is not often that people weep during performances of music, even these days. Of course, you don't have to weep if you have an emotional response. But I remember once playing "Triadic Memories," and at the end of the performance two women in the audience were weeping, one older, one younger woman. I knew one quite well, the other one not so well—I knew her husband, who was a German music critic. It was entirely inappropriate for me to say, "Why are you weeping?" but I tried to figure it out. Perhaps it was because of this wonderful fragility and vulnerability of the music, which was emblematic, in a way, of the human condition. I like to think that is what it was. I can't think of anything else. Apparently— you may have heard this yourself—people go to the Rothko Chapel in Houston (AMM went, we didn't play there but we visited) and quietly weep. But that is quite a heavy scene. All those black paintings, in some ways, it's quite oppressive. There is a kind of charged atmosphere.


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